France will step up military and intelligence assistance to North African governments to “track down the terrorists and hand them over to the judiciary,” Mr. Fillon said.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said it killed retired French engineer Michel Germaneau on Sunday in retaliation for a failed attempt by French commandos and Mauritanian troops to release Mr. Germaneau from an AQIM camp in Mali. Fillon said today Germaneau may have been killed prior to the raid.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy vowed the murder “will not go unpunished” and dispatched Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to the region, where he today meets Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure.
AQIM has expanded in the lawless hinterlands of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Algeria in recent years and been responsible for numerous kidnappings. But French specialist Jean Pierre Filiu argues the group has only 200 to 300 members in two wings and is unpopular even with local criminal gangs, who see AQIM as “not following any rules.”
“In 2003 [Al Qaeda] detained 32 hostages. Today they have only two Spaniards left. That’s two too many, but one cannot speak of a ‘surge,’” says Mr. Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and author of The Nine Lives of Al Qaeda.
Mr. Filiu says that Germaneau was probably killed by the group in an effort to capture the attention of Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. The militant organization was formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat before rebranding itself as Al Qaeda three years ago, and the group has been trying to gain financial and organizational support from Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan since, who treat the North Africa branch as “a peripheral operation,” Filiu says.
In May, the US and France deployed special forces to train local armies. Some French NGOs are privately urging France to tread carefully in its former colonies. They also say that official admonitions for tourists to stay away from the vast Sahel desert region is misguided since Al Qaeda operates in the north, and is not present in the impoverished southern area that depends on tourism.
“We are going to stay and carry on,” says Remi Hemryck of Paris-based SOS Sahel International, an aid group that works in the region. “Most of the insecurity is in the northern desert fringe… Here, the main problem is banditry, not Al Qaeda. The Sahel is under a famine which nobody mentions. Fifteen to 20 million people are directly affected.”
A senior international aid official who asked not to be named said that France must be careful to uphold “international law and humanitarian norms” when cooperating with North African militaries, in order to avoid creating more support for the movements. So far, “you don’t have an Afghanistan effect in North Africa with an [ethnic] Pashtun population to rely on. In Niger and Mali the militants are not supported by the local populations.”
Germaneau was kidnapped in Niger, and then was moved. On May 14 French authorities received “an extremely vague demand” for the liberation of an unspecified set of prisoners, Fillon said, and on July 12 got an ultimatum stating that Germaneau would be killed in 15 days.